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Forget the old jokes, foreign policy was the real debate horror

Forget the old jokes, foreign policy was the real debate horror

Two major wars and not a serious or even coherent conversation to be had — we may be in trouble

Analysis | Washington Politics

If one was hoping to distinguish how the two major presidential candidates view the most critical foreign policy issues of our time, the debate last night was a shattering disappointment.

If one’s expectations were so low as to believe nothing but second-hand embarrassment would be gained from the exchanges last night, then maybe not so much.

On Ukraine and Israel, President Biden and former President Trump inflated, conflated, and bloviated their way through 11 minutes of foreign policy discussion, only turning back to the topics in fleeting moments of taunting incoherence during the rest of the time on the stage.

For Trump, it was surface-level attacks on how, to his mind, Biden’s weakness and lack of leadership in the “disgraceful” Afghanistan withdrawal in September 2021 encouraged Putin to invade Ukraine, and Hamas to attack Israel (he repeated this numerous times during the 90-minute debate, which took place in Atlanta and without a live audience).

Biden retorted by saying Trump openly encouraged Putin to invade in February 2022 and repeated that if not stopped, the Russian president would rampage across Europe to re-establish the “Soviet Empire.” As for Israel, he boasted about a White House ceasefire deal that no one, not Hamas nor Israel, has seen fit to seriously engage in weeks.

“Neither candidate put forth a vision of how the U.S. can positively engage with the world in a manner that advances American interests and addresses the shared existential threats posed by climate change, nuclear proliferation and growing great power tensions,” quipped the Quincy Institute’s Eli Clifton.

That is an understatement. With the immense gravity of two major wars bearing down on the planet simultaneously, the two men vying for the job of commander in chief seemed intent only to talk about these issues within the narrow band of their own choosing. Trump was slightly more expansive — invoking the cost of blood and treasure and the need to end, particularly, the war in Ukraine, while blaming Europe for what he called freeloading. But his boast of being able to end the war in Ukraine while still president-elect was backed up by nothing but his sheer insistence that it would happen.

For his part, Biden made statements that did not comport with current geopolitical reality, but harkened back to the time of D-Day and the Greatest Generation, saying at one point that “we are the most admired country in the world.” His attempt to suggest he is holding back 2,000-pound dumb bombs from Israel for humanitarian reasons was quickly undermined by his assurance that the U.S. was giving Israel everything it wanted and saying the quiet part out loud, that we “are the biggest producer of support for Israel in the world.”

By the end of the debate when Trump was saying Biden “will drive us into World War Three,” the audience was likely too dulled to react. In the morning the spin from both sides will cherry pick and likely dwell on other things: fact-checking Trump, Biden’s age and performance, the cringey exchange over who is a better golf player, and the ongoing disputes over the 2020 election and January 6.

So it is best to put these exchanges out there verbatim, to give folks something to really worry about. This was pretty much all of the foreign policy last night; but answers have been edited a bit for repetition and length (you'll thank us).

CNN Host Dana Bash to Trump: President Vladimir Putin says he'll only end this war if Russia keeps the Ukrainian territory it has already claimed, and Ukraine abandons its bid to join NATO. Are Putin's terms acceptable to you?

Trump: First of all, our veterans and our soldiers can't stand this guy (Biden). They can't stand him. They think he's the worst commander in chief, if that's what you call him, that we've ever had. They can't stand him, so let's get that straight. And they like me more than just about any of them, and that's based on every single bit of information. As far as Russia and Ukraine. If we had a real president, the president that knew, that was respected by Putin, he would have never, he would have never invaded Ukraine. A lot of people are dead right now, much more than people know. You know they talk about numbers. You can double those numbers, maybe triple those numbers. He did nothing to stop it. In fact, I think (Biden) encouraged Russia going in. I tell you what happened. He was so bad with Afghanistan. It was such a horrible embarrassment, most embarrassing moment in the history of our country, that when Putin watched that, and he saw the incompetence …

…The difference is (Putin) never would have invaded Ukraine, never, just like Israel would have never been invaded in a million years by Hamas. You know why? Because Iran was broke with me. I wouldn't let anybody do business with them. They ran out of money. They were broke. They had no money for Hamas. They had no money for anything, no money for terror. That's why you had no terror at all during my administration, this place, the whole world is blowing up under him (Biden).

Biden: I've never heard so much malarkey my whole life. Look, the fact of the matter is that we're in a situation where, let's take the last point first. Iran attacked American troops, killed and caused brain damage for a number of these troops, and he did nothing, not when when he was president, there they attacked. He said they're just having headaches. It's all it is. He didn't do a thing when the attack took place. Number one. Number two, we got over 100,000 Americans and others out of Afghanistan during that Airlift. Number three, we found ourselves in a situation where, if you take a look at what Trump did in Ukraine, this guy told (Putin) do whatever you want, do whatever you want. And that's exactly what Trump did to Putin, encourage him, do whatever you want. And he went in, and listen to what he said when he went in. (Putin) was going to take Kyiv in five days. Remember, because it's part of the old Soviet Union, that's what he wanted to reestablish, Kyiv. And he, in fact, didn't do it at all. He didn't win, wasn’t able to get it done. And they've lost over they've lost 1000s and 1000s of troops, 500,000 troops.

Bash: President Trump, I just want to go back to my original question, which is, are Putin's terms acceptable to you keeping the terror in Ukraine?

No, they're not acceptable. But look, this is a war that never should have started. If we had a leader in this war. (Biden) led everybody along. He's given $200 billion now or more to Ukraine. He's given $200 billion — that's a lot of money. I don't think there's ever been anything like it. Every time that Zelensky comes to this country, walks away with $60 billion he's the greatest salesman ever. And I'm not knocking him. I'm not knocking anything. I'm only saying the money that we're spending on this war, and we shouldn't be spending, it should have never happened. I will have that war settled between Putin and Zelensky as President Elect before I take office on January 20. I'll have that war settled. People being killed so needlessly, so stupidly, and I will get it settled. And I'll get it settled fast before I take office.

Biden: The fact is that Putin is a war criminal. He's killed 1000s and 1000s of people, and he has made one thing clear, he wants to reestablish what was part of the Soviet empire, not just a piece. He wants all of Ukraine. That's what he wants. And then you think he'll stop there? Do you think he'll stop when, if he takes Ukraine, what do you think happens to Poland, to Belarus? What do you think happens to those NATO countries? And so if you want a war, you ought to find out what he's going to do, because if, in fact, he does what he says and walks away — and by the way, all that money we give Ukraine are weapons we make here in the United States, we give them the weapons, not the money at this point, and our NATO allies have produced as much funding for Ukraine as we have. That's why, that's why we're strong.

Bash: Moving on to the Middle East. In October, Hamas attacked Israel, killing more than 1000 people and taking hundreds of hostages. Among those held and thought to still be alive, are five Americans. Israel's response has killed 1000s of Palestinians and created a humanitarian crisis in Gaza. President Biden you've put forward a proposal to resolve this conflict, but so far, Hamas has not released the remaining hostages, and Israel is continuing its military offensive in Gaza. So what additional leverage will you use to get Hamas and Israel to end the war?

Biden: Number one, everyone from the United Nations Security Council straight through to the G7 to the Israelis and Netanyahu himself have endorsed the plan I put forward, endorsed the plan that I put forward, which has three stages to it. The first stage is trade the hostages for a ceasefire. Second phase is a ceasefire with additional conditions. The third phase is end of the war. The only one who wants the war to continue is Hamas… We're still pushing hard from to get them to accept in the meantime, what's happened in Israel? The only thing I've denied Israel was 2000 pound bombs. They don't work very well in populated areas. They kill a lot of innocent people. We're providing Israel with all the weapons they need and when they need them. And by the way, I'm the guy that organized the world against Iran when they had a full blown intercontinental missile attack on Israel. No one was hurt, one Israeli was accidentally killed, and it stopped. We saved Israel. We are the biggest producer of support for Israel of anyone in the world. …And by the way, they've been greatly weakened. Hamas greatly weakened. And they should be, they should be eliminated, but you've got to be careful for using certain weapons among population centers.

Trump: Just going back to Ukraine for one second, we have an ocean separating us. The European nations together have spent 100 billion, or maybe more than that, less than us. Why doesn't he call them? Say you got to put up your money, like I did with NATO. I got them to put up hundreds of billions of dollars. The Secretary General of NATO said Trump did the most incredible job I've ever seen. You wouldn't, they wouldn't have anything — they were going out of business. We were spending almost 100% of the money was i paid by us. He didn't do that. … As far as Israel and Hamas, Israel is the one that wants to keep going. (Biden) said, the only one who wants to keep going is Hamas. Actually Israel is the one, and you should let him go and let them finish the job. (Biden) doesn't want to do it. He's become like a Palestinian, but they don't like him because he's a very bad Palestinian. He's a weak one.

It goes on from there. Both accuse each other of doing things that are destroying the country yet leave no impression either has a plan to actually save it. Remember, as all the coverage of the night unfolds over Biden's fitness, and snap polls, and other speculations, remember that the foreign policy was the real horror of the evening.

Democrat candidate, U.S. President Joe Biden, and Republican candidate, former U.S. President Donald Trump, attend a presidential debate in Atlanta, Georgia, U.S., June 27, 2024. REUTERS/Brian Snyder

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